Sunday, August 7, 2011

"There is no frigate like a book..."

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: In order to write this, I had to stop polishing a wand. No, that's not a naughty euphemism. My ten-year-old saw the most recent Harry Potter movie with the rest of the family when it came out. As we've done after the past several movies, we urged her to try reading the series. We have every book in hardcover, the legacy of her sister's and brother's devotion to J.K. Rowling's stories. Long before there were films to give faces to Ron, Hermione and Harry, my older two were lining up at Longfellow Book's Mugglefest, nearly fainting with excitement as the great clock in Portland's City Hall tolled midnight and the store owners presto'd away billowing satin covers to reveal huge stacks of... books.

This summer, it's my youngest's turn. Ten-going-on-eleven, she's the perfect age to get utterly lost in Rowling's magical world. She's torn through five of the books since mid-July, and when she's not reading, she's playing: casting spells, making potions, "flying" on a broomstick. We're making a wand out of a willow branch she found, and the next project will be knitting a Gryffindor muffler.

John Gardner famously talks about "the fictional dream," but there are some books that transcend that. The worlds they create are so vivid, the characters that inhabit them so alive, they make our day-to-day life dreamlike, and anchor reality to the written page. Mostly, it happens in childhood, although there are some adult authors who make the magic as well. Who hasn't felt that if you managed to take just the right Chicago El, you could get get off at V.I. Warshawski's office? Or drive through the Four Corners area of the Southwest and stop at Leaphorn and Chee's tribal police station?

As a child, I became utterly lost in The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Two boys build an interstellar rocket out of scrap and then, with their mentor Tycho Bass, fly to the Mushroom Planet and literally save the world. Not being technical enough to actually build something out of scrap, I settled for thumbtacking giant paper mushrooms all over the attic walls and taking a series of exciting flights in a large cardboard box. I'm not sure what my stage setting actually looked like, but in my memories, it's always incredibly realistic, right down to the moss hanging off the mushrooms and a cool damp fog creeping along the ground.

How about you, Reds? What fictional worlds became real to you as a child? What ones do you wish were real as an adult?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: The Mushroom Planet! The Mushroom Planet! I am bursting into tears. I haven't thought about that for so long. Oh, I'll add more later, but now, I'm off to revisit.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: How did I miss the Mushroom Planet????

LUCY BURDETTE: I totally loved the Mushroom Planet too, Julia. But I'm impressed at how far you took it. I don't think there was one book or series that inspired me to world-build like the Harry Potter books do for kids today. I was too busy tearing into the next book. Like CHARLOTTE'S WEB, or THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE, or CADDIE WOODLAWN, or WINNIE THE POOH. When I was hitting early teenage years, I loved a book of short stories published by American Girl called STORIES TO LIVE BY (1960.) I poured over these stories about girls going on first dates, wearing braces, deciding whether to tell unpopular truths, getting along with their stepmothers. They somehow made the agony of junior high school more bearable!

HALLIE EPHRON: Easy peasie - it was the Oz books. There were something like 15 of them that L. Frank Baum wrote. Dorothy Gale was my Harry Potter. And I remember waltzing around in the backyard in a particularly ferocious burst of Santa Ana winds wishing myself aloft and thrown over the rainbow (though 'over the rainbow' is not in the book - it was over the Deadly Desert that surrounds Oz.) I also did a lot of heel clicking but it got me nowhere.

RHYS BOWEN: As I child I got a weekly comic in which one of the stories was Patsy of the Circus. I was Patsy. I made a trapeze in the tree in the backyard and spent half of every summer day upside down. Amazingly I never fell, because Patsy never fell. But that circus world seemed ideal to me. I loved animals, especially lions and I really wanted to be a lion tamer.

As a teen I discovered the Lord of the Rings. That was the first book that took over my life, my imagination and is still with me today. It was the first time someone had created a believable world into which I could step. And I also have to thank Tony Hillerman for letting me be part of Chee and Leaphorn's world. When we drive through the Southwest I can recognize every landmark, thanks to Hillerman.

HANK: Okay, I'm back, after reacquainting myself with Tycho Bass. I adored The Diamond in the Window, Jane Langton's wonderful mystery with kids in Concord and the transcendentalists. (I learned how to speak backward from it, a real talent at the time. EGDELWONK, EGDELWONK! Was their motto.) It was--is--brilliant, and beautiful.

JULIA: Hank, my oldest has The Diamond in the Window and its sequels signed by Jane Langton herself. One of her prized possessions. What else?

HANK: ALL the Edward Eager books, do you know them? Magical fantasies with four siblings, Half Magic and Thyme Garden and Knight's Castle and Magic or not. I can't be in a thyme garden, even now, without wondering... And I still hand them out to whatever kids show up at our house.

And, of course, A Wrinkle in Time. Tessering--it could happen.

: I think I started with Winnie the Pooh. Still have my copies, too, "vintage" now. Then A Wrinkle in Time, and everything that came after in that series. But I think the first books that completely sucked me into a different world view were the Narnia books. Then Lord of the Rings. Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen. TH White's The Once and Future King. Anything by Andre Norton. Are we beginning to see a trend here? Oh, and horsey books. Everything by Marguerite Henry, and I LOVED the Black Stallion books. There were book I didn't read until I was grown up that I would have loved; The Secret Garden. Anne of Green Gables.

And I'm a little peeved that I didn't grow up with Harry.

JAN BROGAN: I got hooked on Little Women and Eight Cousins. I was never big on magic, sci-fi, or fantasy. My fantasy was always in a historical world. Celia Garth was about a young girl during the Revolutionary War and I was also a big fan of Johnny Tremain, and some series about the founding of Quakerism.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I don't think I ever really lost myself in books as a kid - not the way you're all describing. Clearly, you gals were eating some different mushrooms. I always knew my pretend horses (Misty! Brighty!) would not be there when I woke up in the morning. If I had any real fantasies inspired by books they were more likely to be about my doing something heroic - helping runaway slaves escape, or hiding Anne Frank's family. After reading one biography I thought I wanted to work in a leper colony. But the nun part put me off.

JULIA: Admittedly, wand-waving and time travel does seem more appealing than vows of poverty and chastity. How about you, dear reader? What book transported your imagination and kept you until you emerged, blinking, back in this reality?


  1. Wow! First I refused to learn to read at all(obstinate cuss). Then the floodgates opened with Ferdinand the Bull and Horton Hatches an Egg, moved through EVERY Farley Black Stallion and Terhune collie story (parents were professional horse/dog people natch...). Then on to Hardy Boys/ Tom Swift (and who can forget The Caves of Nuclear Fire...). Next, Johnny Tremayne (had handicapped p's by then) His HAND will remain with me forever.Then DUNE. Everything a tween boy could want.And a bag of chips. The sequels can't touch it. Then I became a man. There, #mylifeinanutshell.
    Terrific post. Takes me back aways.

  2. Hands down Treasure Island. Absolutely fell in love with pirates, sword fighting, and looking for buried treasure. I even started writing a sequel where the heroine had a striking resemblance to me and fell madly in love with Jim Hawkins.

  3. Ferdinand the Bull and Horton Hatches an Egg! YES! And while we're on Dr. Seuss, the first one I fell in love with was The 5,000 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Reading him aloud with my kids, it was Mr. Brown Can Moo.

    Gotta read Dune.

  4. ..I just bought King of the Wind and Big Red at a tag sale for 50 cents. Really took me back.

  5. Hank, I was a big Half Magic reader (and its sequels) and the other book that I loved? The Witch of Blackbird Pond!

  6. KING OF THE WIND! Ro, may I come over and read??

    The Witch of Blackbird to find it! How about the E. Nesbit books?

    And just today I gave one of my stash of Knight's Castle to a 7 year old. (Rubbing palms together) I love to get new recruits!

  7. Nice trip in time capsule.

  8. Oh, my, I had the Horse Album book! Wonder what happened to it?

    I moved from The Black Stallion books to James Herriot. That's one of the reasons my first book was set in Thirsk, in Yorkshire, as that was where Herriot lived and practiced, and he would sign books on Wednesday afternoons in his surgery. Lovely man.

    And then there was Dick Francis, a passion shared with my father.

    So interesting to see how we've all been shaped by what we read. I can't imagine having grown up without books . . .

  9. Jan - I loved Celia Garth and most of the books by Gwen Bristow. I thought I was the only one who remembered her. But one of my first books was East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Dee

  10. Lord of the Rings! I drowned in the books ever since I started to read the First Book when I was 12 or 13. Meanwhile I´ve read the book about 40 times (beeing now 39 years) in different languages and I still get lost in Middle-Earth *gg*. Loved Harry Potter, too, even I was a grown-up when I read the books. And nothing is more absorbing as reading the Highlander-Saga by Diana Gabaldon during a holiday in Scotland! :-)

  11. Little House on the Praire transported me out of my life and onto the Praire for many many many years (as Laura grew so did I)

  12. Love this topic. I also lost myself in the Mushroom Planet books. And in all the Oz books (was that a California-girl thing, Hallie?)- Mr. Pumpkin-head, Ozma of Oz, ah... I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder books several times. And read through Sherlock Holmes and Poe enough to give myself serious nightmares in the 5th grade.

    The best part of summer was the seemingly endless time for reading.


  13. So many old favorites listed here! I was (and am) a voracious reader, and read whatever I could lay my hands on. Which explains why I read both The Little Prince (Saint Exupery) and The Once and Future King at a tender age, and took them quite literally. Still don't quite get that elephant in a hat thing, but the image stays with me.

    Speaking of which, many of the books whose memory I treasure had outstanding illustrations--the original version of Ferdinand the Bull my Munro Leaf, for example, and of course the wonderful E. H. Shepard illustrations for the whole A.A. Milne series (I can't forgive Disney for usurping them), and the Garth Williams illustrations for Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, or The Rescuers.

  14. I started reading at about three but when I was eight I discovered Nancy Drew and the rest, as they say, is history. The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Tom Swift, Jr, Dana Girls. Someone mentioned The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Charlotte's Web. ANyone read Rosamund du Jardin?

  15. Oh, Hank, I haven't thought of E. Nesbit for YEARS. Thanks for that wonderful memory. And of course yes to Nancy Drew--and Anne of Green Gables I suppose goes without saying?? But I also had this bizarre fondness for What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next. My mother read them as a child. They are very dated--girl with scarlet fever, etc.--but I remember that my mother's book had a red cover and the pages smelt of toffee...

  16. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were my fantasy worlds as a child. I still have my 'Alice' book with the wonderful John Tenniel illustrations. When my family can stand it, I still quote the nonsense poetry from the two volumes.

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